Tag Archives: Social Skills

How to React When Your First Impression Is Negative

impressionsSomeone found this blog recently by searching for the title of this post. I talked about first impressions last summer, but I don’t remember ever discussing what to do with them.

Here’s the thing – first impressions aren’t always correct.

Some people have silver tongues when you first meet them but quickly reveal serious character flaws as your friendship grows. ¬†And I’ve known socially awkward people who have a heart of gold once you get to know them. (Of course the opposite is true for both scenarios as well).

It’s impossible to know ahead of time if your first impression will turn out to be accurate, so I keep those thoughts in mind for the future and see what other clues they drop about their personality, character, and worldview.

No one can keep up a facade forever. Eventually you will figure out if they’re someone you can rely on to help you through rough patches in life, if they’re the kind of person who will gossip about you behind your back, if they’re willing to be honest with you when you’re in the wrong. A negative first impression might be reinforced, but it also might be neutralized by the way you see them behave in other settings. We’ve all experienced bad days, and we all make a terrible first impression on someone sooner or later.

Or maybe I’m the only one brave enough to admit that. ūüėČ

I am hesitant to discuss certain topics until I’ve known someone a long time, though. Sometimes I’ve probably been too cautious, but I’d rather have a good idea of how someone will react than jump into a sensitive discussion without any idea where I might land. A negative first impression will make me even more willing to avoid certain topics, but I don’t have problem changing my mind if the person I’m getting to know demonstrates ¬†that we share common values.

No, that is not a veiled reference to religion, politics, or ideology. I am drawn to kind, compassionate, playful, inclusive folks, and they’re found everywhere.

Readers, how would you answer this question?

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The Internet is not a Four-Letter Word

Over the last year or so some of the most popular search terms for this blog have been related to whether or not the Internet is good for our social skills.

I’ve had an online presence since the spring of 1999 and ever since then have heard the same arguments against spending time online trotted out regularly. Today I’ll be pushing back against the assumptions behind them. The arguments are in bold and my comments immediately follow.

The Internet is dangerous. Actually, most cases of rape, child abuse and certain types of murder are committed by someone the victim knows. Anyone can lie about their identity, past or intentions. Of course we should be cautious around people we don’t know well but meeting online doesn’t make “John” dangerous any more than meeting “Sally” at a friend’s party (or being related to her) makes her a trustworthy babysitter.

Internet relationships don’t foster genuine connections!¬†Tell that to my husband. ūüėČ Longtime readers already know this but we first met on a message board many years ago. I didn’t know what he looked like until we met in person but I loved the man I’d gotten to know through email and phone calls. Yes, ¬†one should be cautious in the beginning while you figure out if the other person is whom they claim to be but this is true of any relationship.

The Internet is destroying our social skills. I’ve never seen evidence of this. There have always been (and will always be) rude and polite people in this world. No technology can change human nature.

The Internet undermines local relationships. To be honest I do think access to the Internet has changed how often some people spend time with neighbours and¬†acquaintances. Twenty years ago one’s social circle was almost always limited to people who lived nearby: coworkers, neighbours, friends of friends. If you shared common interests and a similar outlook on life this worked out well but it was also incredibly isolating for anyone who deviated from the norm. It’s much easier to pine for the good old days¬†if you’ve never had to worry about being ostracized or discriminated against.


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A Response to Should Schools Teach About Relationships

If I had the time and resources to take up a cause, I can think of none better for me than to lobby the school boards to include relationship courses in their curriculums.¬† And I would want such courses to not only teach kids a variety of relationship skills — such as how to negotiate with others and reach a fair compromise — but perhaps most importantly,¬†how to recognize, avoid, or escape from an abusive partner.

From Should Schools Teach About Relationships?

Click on the link to read the rest of Paul’s post. I actually agree with almost everything he said but I ¬†have some concerns about this idea that I’d like to discuss today.

First, who would create this curriculum? The public high school I attended taught abstinence-based sex education. Because our community was so religiously fundamentalist and politically conservative the curriculum rigidly reinforced 1950s gender roles and assumed every student was heterosexual. Academically it was a fantastic school but I shudder to think what they would have taught us about relationships in general had health class been expanded to include this.

Second, how would you avoid controversy?¬†Some families believe in strict hierarchies, others are egalitarian. Others say that their god intended men and women, adults and children to assume certain roles in the family depending on their age and gender, others don’t believe in god or don’t think god wants these things. One culture’s expectations of privacy, what love looks like or how to tell if your relationship is a good one may be quite different from another culture’s opinion. This is not to say that we can’t find common ground, only that I think creating one definition of healthy relationships that every culture and religion agrees upon can be tricky.

Third, can¬†this help¬†teens who have already been abused?¬†Statistically speaking about 25% of ¬†the students will have been sexually abused, 11% physically abused, and 9% neglected by age 18 and none of these statistics include verbal or emotional abuse. [source]. For a significant percentage of the class this is something they’ve personally experienced. It’s not an abstract discussion. I do wonder if learning what a healthy relationship looks like will help them not to continue the cycleas a victim or a perpetrator. Many abused children grow up to be great parents…but some recreate what happened to them with their own kids. But I also wonder if bringing up painful memories in a non-clinical setting is a good idea…


What do you think? Does Paul have a good idea? How would you structure a class about healthy relationships?

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The Small Talk Chronicles: Good Questions

Part one in this series.

One of the most difficult things about small talk (at least for me) is figuring out what sort of questions are both appropriate and interesting for the setting.

Inquiries like where do you work?, are you married?¬†or do you have kids? seem to be fairly common. There’s absolutely nothing impolite about asking any of these, of course.

The issues I have with these questions are as follows:

  • They’re a little boring.
  • They can easily lead to conversational dead-ends if someone doesn’t have a job or family or isn’t happy with what they do have.
  • If you don’t have the “correct” answer some people will proceed to tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong with your life. :O

This isn’t to say I never ask these types of questions, only that it’s good to have a back-up plan.

So far I’ve learned that I prefer open-ended questions that can be scaled to include more or less personal information and that I already know how I’d answer.

For example I love asking, “what do you like to do?”

Everyone has something in his or her life that brings a spark to his or her eye. When you figure out what that something is – often even if it isn’t necessarily something you’re knowledgable of – it breathes new life into the conversation.

It’s such an open-ended question that someone who loves her job could mention that while someone else who is passionate about his kids, her hobby, his volunteer work, her spiritual awakening would be free to talk about those aspects of their lives as well.

This is also a highly scalable question. By that I mean that it can be adapted to fit any situation – work parties, family gatherings, wedding receptions, or job interviews. How much the person who answers this question decides to reveal can expand or contract as well.

 How did you meet our host?

Or, alternatively, how did you decide to volunteer or work with this organization?

I like this question because it so easily leads to stories. Was your new acquaintance once set up on a hilariously doomed blind date with the host? Did he or she first become interested in the organization because relatives worked there? There are so many possibilities.

Are you planning to attend event X?

One of my favourite things about living in Toronto is that there’s always something free to check out on the weekends, from festivals to parades, rib fests to art fairs.

Not everyone plans to check out events like The Pride Parade, Buskerfest, or the Toronto Jazz Festival, of course,¬†but enough do that it’s worth it to ask if there’s a particularly well-attended event coming up in the near future.


What are your favourite questions to ask when you don’t know someone well?

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When Is a Topic (in)Appropriate?

Recently someone stumbled across On the Other Hand by googling this question:

What topics are off limits for most people to express?

A contentious debate with a friend who is firmly lodged on the other side of a controversial issue can be absolutely acceptable while bringing up something as ordinary as what someone else is eating or wearing could be emotionally abusive.

The question isn’t what we discuss but how and why we bring it up. In general:

Avoid sore spots. It isn’t possible to avoid every topic that could¬†potentially¬†be painful or offensive, of course, but I usually refuse to engage in hot button debates on religion, politics, reproduction or sexuality with people I don’t know well. The appropriateness of these topics can vary quite a bit based on your surroundings and the individuals involved, though.

Have an escape hatch. Sometimes a conversation gradually steers into subject matter that is uncomfortable for one or more of the participants. Always have a backup question or comment in mind. It could be a running joke, an anecdote, thoughts on a recent movie or book, or something else entirely.

Don’t assume they agree. When I was a Christian it was frightfully easy to fall into the belief that everyone else in my small town shared my convictions. There were a few times when this assumption went over like a lead balloon. Despite having nothing but good intentions I ended up annoying people I really cared about by assuming what they believed instead of asking them.

Make sure you’re ready for the truth.¬†It’s ok to ask almost any question if you do it politely and are ready to accept whatever answer is given. It doesn’t bother me to be asked, “Are you going to have kids?” Being pressured or preached to about the¬†choices I’ve made¬†has damaged¬†more than one friendship, though.

(Picture credit – Laura Bassett, et al.)


How would you answer this question?

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The Small Talk Chronicles

One of the things I dread about making new friends are the politely inane conversations people tumble into when they first meet. So many topics are off-limits for these conversations because they can so quickly devolve into hard feelings or a clash of ideologies.

Most safe topics aren’t things I have ever fired up my neurons about in order to form an opinion . I don’t:

  • Watch sports or reality show competitions.
  • Have kids or pets.
  • Believe that weather reporters do anything other than pick numbers out of a hat when making their weekly forecasts.
  • Know anything about fashion, makeup, or shopping.
  • Want ¬†juicy details on what¬†so-and-so did or said last week.

With the exception of gossiping none of these topics are¬†bad and I don’t think any less of those who find them scintillating. They just aren’t intriguing to me.

Normally I don’t post about topics that I haven’t at least begun to unravel. I think I will turn this into a series posts as I figure out what does (and does not) work for those of us who hate small talk.

What I love to discuss – the life weirdnesses and triumphs that come with being a bi, agnostic, pacifist, childfree feminist –¬†also tend to be stuff that isn’t always a good idea to bring up with someone the first time you meet.

Some people seriously do not respond well to any or all of these labels for reasons that don’t have a damn thing to do with me as a fellow human being. More often than I like to think about I’ve been on the receiving end of a lecture on why I am not (or should not be) one or more of these items so until we’ve either hung out a few times or the topics come up naturally in conversation I’m stuck with silly banter about the weather and fluffy’s latest adventure at the dog park.

What I’ve learned so far:

As much as I love to rely on asking other people questions about their lives I really dislike it when this technique is used on me. After a few minutes it begins to feel like an interrogation instead of a conversation.

Sometimes humour can be introduced early in a conversation but I express it most often through wordplay or dry, ironic understatements. Once someone gets to know me it’s entertaining but it can be jarring for people who aren’t accustomed to this style.


Fellow introverts and other despisers of this social convention, what tricks do you use to keep the conversation flowing more smoothly while playing the small talk game?

People who love small talk, why do you enjoy it so much? Is there any advice you can give to those of us who don’t enjoy it?

Everyone, do you prefer small fish or big ones? ūüėČ

Penguins meet and talk small fish, big fish

(Photo credit.)

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Has the Internet Destroyed Our Social Skills?

Over the last week I’ve stumbled across multiple articles and blog posts that claim the Internet is destroying our social skills.

There is no denying that the Internet changed how we communicated with friends and family in faraway cities in an instant. I’ve reconnected with people I haven’t seen in person for 10 or 15 years because of email, social networking sites and search engines. So far all of the old friends and¬†acquaintances¬†with whom I’ve wanted to catch up have appeared online at some point. This is incredible.

The marrow of today’s discussion:

Has the Internet negatively affected our social skills?

Some of the articles I linked to earlier claim that we were kinder and  knew how to get along with one another better before people began spending so much time socializing online.

Is this true?

I was a few months shy of 16 before my family signed up for Internet access. Most of the communities we lived in during those years were small, rural and midwestern. ¬†In my experience a small percentage of the population will always be malignantly unfriendly but most people are wonderful most of the time. This was as true 20 years ago as it was last week. The biggest difference between life before the Internet and what we have now is that it’s easier now to choose with whom we spend our time. This is a good thing. My life would have been much more difficult if I hadn’t been able to connect with like-minded people. (Living in a small town of circles can be achingly lonely when you’re a square peg!)

To be honest, though, I was so young when I first plugged in that I may not be remembering things correctly. Maybe people really were better socialized in the 90s, 80s, 70s, etc. Maybe we really are losing those skills by spending too much time online.


What was life like before you discovered the Internet? Did people as a whole have better interpersonal skills a generation ago?

Are we romanticizing the past?

(I’m particularly interesting in hearing from those of you who did¬†not grow up with Internet access!)



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